There comes a time in every male child's life when The Great Cosmic Truth of Post-Toddlerhood dawns on him: He is no longer a baby. Now he is a boy, spelled B-O-Y.
I can't remember how old I was when this realization hit - somewhere around six or seven, I think - but I'll never forget the incident that prompted it, namely my moving up in the world of personal vehicles.
I'd outgrown my tricycle.
What, after all, was a tricycle? Not transportation in any sense. Yeah, sure, you could putz around on the sidewalk in front of your house, at a snail's pace and under Mommy's watchful eye. Big deal.
But a two-wheeler was The Promise Fulfilled. It had speed, flash, funk, and best of all, freedom. As soon as I had my bike, I'd be into the wind and gone, baby, gone!
I told my parents I was ready for a bike (keeping my delusions of grandeur to myself) and much to my surprise, they agreed.
We all hopped in the car and headed to the logical source for a kid's first bike - Emmy Bernard's.
Today, we'd say Emmy ran his own recycling center. But back then, before the word "recycling" was even coined, he was called a junkman. Emmy was quiet, shy, hardworking, and scrupulously honest in short, a perfect gentleman.
He collected and resold scrap metal and glass, and in the process ran across all sorts of things some people wanted to get rid of but other people were looking for, among them bicycles.
We got to his place on the Bloomingdale Road on a fine summer day and after initial greetings and telling him what we wanted, he took us in back of his house to inspect his wares.
There was a whole line of bikes, all of them too far big for me. But that's because I missed a gem hidden in their midst, which Emmy picked up and brought over to us. For me, it was love at first sight.
It was an emerald-green Columbia with ivory trim and it was in beautiful shape. It had no dents; the handle grips and pedals showed few signs of wear; the seat was still bright white, its leather uncracked. It also was my exact size. And best of all, it had training wheels.
Training wheels weren't in the big kid's world, but they could be the way to get there. See, while I really wanted to ride a bike, I knew I couldn't unless it had training wheels. And my plan was to start with the training wheels and when I'd gained the balance and confidence to get rid of them, I'd be two-wheeling all by my lonesome.
Two wheels or no wheels
My plan was logical, but it didn't take into account one major obstacle - my mother.
Quite simply, my mother had no use for training wheels. She figured if you wanted to ride a bike, you learned how to ride a bike. If you wanted training wheels, you could stick with your tricycle.
It was all a generational misunderstanding: Since my mother was almost 40 when I was born, I only knew her as an old lady. But in her youth she'd been a total tomboy, and on the streets of New York City, no less. She played handball and stickball with the best of the boys, and even more impressive, she swam in the East River. She'd never even seen training wheels till she was an adult, at which time they seemed the same to her as double-runner ice skates or water wings?- affectations that if introduced to lads at a tender age could result in a lifetime of anemia, neurosis and sissyhood.
As soon as my parents bought the bike, my mother asked Emmy if he could remove the training wheels.
"Oh sure," he said. "No problem."
"Wait," I said. "I want the training wheels."
"That's nice," said my mother. "But you can't have them."
"Why not?" I asked, sounding a bit too whiny for my own comfort.
"Because," said my mother, "if you want to learn to ride a bike, you'll start with a bike not a bike with training wheels. They're not the same."
"I know," I said. "That's why I want the training wheels."
"Ok, shtunk, here's the deal," she said. "You can either have the bikeOR the training wheels. But you can't have both. Now make up your mind, because Mr. Bernard is a busy man and we're not going to waste any more of his time."
Now here's the thing: I knew there were all different kinds of mothers. For instance, there were the Warm Fuzzy Mommies, the ones who were always smiling angelically, baking up a storm, and who'd kiss your boo-boos and make them better. Or there were the Foxy Fifty mothers - the ones who had lacquered hair, cats eye glasses and looked good in toreador slacks. There were even Progressive Urban mothers, who made sure every kid, especially their own, called them by first name, and who could explain Freud's theories of sexual repression to 10-year-olds without flinching.
Then there was my mother who was none of those.
My mother was the Delta Force of Mom-hood. She was on 24-hour full alert, could deploy on a moment's notice, and never, ever, negotiated with terrorists.
I looked at my mother, then the bike, then my mother again.
"I'll take the bike," I said.
"Smart choice," said my mother.
And it was.
The long haul
Learning to ride without training wheels was as difficult and scary as I'd thought it'd be and for the first week or so I spent more time bouncing off the pavement than gliding over it. But once I learned to ride (and what a thrill that was!) the entire town was mine.
I could get to all the candy stores, could ride with my friends, or could just take wander on my own, a virtual will o' the wisp.
Since it was a one-speed, I had to push it up the hills, but the reward was being able to tear back down them, hell-bent for leather. Petrova was my favorite; Helen Hill and Olive Street were way out of my league.
I don't know how long I had that bike. Since I stayed the same size for years, I don't think I outgrew it till sixth grade or so. Even then, after all the wear and tear I put on it, it was as a tribute to American workmanship of yore - still in excellent shape. In fact, when I finally bid it an emotional farewell, it was a happy one, since I gave it to a friend's kid brother, who took to it as I had.
I still love to ride bikes and in fact have two of them - a mountain bike and a road bike. They've got 18 speeds, super brakes and suspensions, and ergonomic this and ergonomic that. They are tributes to the most advanced bicycle engineering the space age has to offer. They're sturdy and dependable and can conquer any terrain, under any weather conditions.
They're a far cry from my little old one-speed Columbia clunker and have provided years of great riding.
But ultimately my Columbia has it all over them, since it has provided me with years of fond memories.